At points where one might expect a mid-twentieth-century writer to reach toward Marxist or existentialist or other systematic consolidations, Mistral surprises me with her insistence on Franciscan simplicities, subjectivities, domestic truths, and landscapes. (I suspect that this is one of the reasons why she is not "canonized" in the way that other Modernist or Vanguardist experimental writers are. Her work is often defined in counterrelation to the Modernist model of Rubén Darío.) One example: during her years in France, Mistral resisted engagement with questions about social policies, especially suffrage. Because in English she is most often read (and taught) through the lens of our version of feminism, positions like these can seem problematic. (Once again, I suspect that's one reason that pieces like the complex, passionate prose-poem sequences of Desolación are not much read or taught in our culture, though the more emotionally traditional lyrics from that book are.) On first glance, the apparent female "masochism" of the passionate Desolación prose pieces can seem mildly embarrassing, not quite fitting the critical paradigm. And yet the more I read those pieces, the more they seemed consistent, however I might try to "translate" their politics. Mistral argues from a different set of cultural assumptions, though apparently using the same vocabulary, and the cognates cause us problems. Mistral's "feminism" assumed the constructive nature of gender roles; she saw suffrage as a problem less urgent than the challenge to honor, defend, and reward "female" work in "female" spheres, from which influence can expand outward. What could seem an inconsistency—her resistance to "public" (viz., male) questions of polity—proves to be consistent with her commitment to the mandates, as she saw them, of female identity and realities: the essential formation of human bodies through childbirth and maternity, and the necessary extension of those roles in education as the formation of the child's consciousness and spirituality. By these standards, the status of mothers and teachers, in questions for instance about the education of women and children and about the preparation and working conditions of (usually female) teachers—as in her work in Mexico and Chile and in writing texts for schools and for adult students—was a more pressing, because more primary, concern: what was at stake was female identity, influence, and artistry. Or more precisely, as a member of a rural middle class, Mistral placed a higher priority on problems of female vulnerability in the face of male power in its various modes— domestic, social, and economic—and her public and literary commitments reflected that hierarchy of concerns.
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